Welcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.
Alice is an aspiring publisher-cum-writer-cum-editor. She can usually be found sweating in an exercise studio or stalking someone or other in a publishing house, hoping to scrounge another week off the dole.
Without further ado, here are Alice’s choices:
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has shaped and informed my life since the day I was christened. As a child it influenced my love of nonsense, my interest in madness, my belief in the power of imagination and dreams. As I got older I started to find joy in its linguistic play — in puns, rhymes and sometimes just the simple silliness of its language. More recently, I have started to consider it in terms of a journey, but one without an end point or goal. Read in this way, Alice’s dream becomes an allegory of our own lives. We move from random event to chance occurrence, encountering different versions of our selves at every twist and turn, always trying to get somewhere even though most of the time we aren’t quite sure where.
Alice asks the Cheshire puss: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” to which he replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Alice doesn’t know, and, quite often, neither do we. I sometimes find myself feeling like the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, frantically running just to stay in one place. Life shouldn’t be like that. I have found that accepting the Cheshire Cat’s wisdom, as Alice eventually does, brings me into the beautiful madness of the present, which one day in the future will feel so much like a dream.
Mann’s Doctor Faustus is an astounding work of fiction and permanently changed the way I perceive the world. It is also practically impossible to convey in this short space (although I’ll do my best). I first read it as part of a university module called ‘Histories of the Devil’, which should give you some sense of the book and of the brilliance of my professor. Once I started reading, I came up for air only once or twice as I tried to wrap my head around it. I couldn’t. Neither could my fellow course mates. Neither, somewhat reassuringly, could our professor. That didn’t stop us instinctively understanding that what Mann had written was of profound importance. We spent hours discussing it, re-reading it, quoting it and corresponding about it. We even read it in a lecture alongside a Beethoven symphony, studying it as though it were a musical score. I can vividly remember the goose bumps on my arms as a hundred or so of us sat there on wooden benches listening, reading and straining to understand.
Instead of trying to explain the whole novel to you, I want to tell you some of the most important things I learned from it. I hope that this will give you the impetus to read it for yourselves. If you do, I suspect you will find in it something entirely different to me. This, of course, is part of its resounding genius.
I learned that perpetual striving is perpetual negation, which is itself a form of death. I learned that as long as human beings strive, they will go wrong. I learned that the character of life is the eternal woman: music, art, wisdom and love. I learned that before WWII, Germany embodied all of these things. I learned that in the wake of the death camps, art could only be its own parody. I learned that aestheticizing politics turned into the politicisation of art, so that any serious critique was recuperated into the sphere it set out to criticise. I learned that mourning is what happens to art when there is no longer the possibility of an echo. I learned that there is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism. I found the laughter of the devil in every line.
I came across Ian Thornton’s The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms entirely by accident. And thanks be to god I did. I read it, I cried and I talked about it to anyone and everyone that would listen. I wrote about, then I re-read it. I could not believe that I had not heard of this book. I remember saying to my boyfriend, ‘This is one of the best books that I have read by a living author.’ And it’s Thornton’s debut novel.
The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is a wonderfully balanced mix of the absurd, the beautiful, the tragic and the downright odd. It manages to unapologetically revel in language without being at all frivolous, which I think is a very rare achievement. The novel takes on huge and oft tackled themes — war, unrequited love, guilt, madness — but embeds them into the narrative in a way that gives them an originality. You sit up blinking, wondering why you never thought about it that way before. Just as Doctor Faustus helped me to comprehend the scale of death caused by World War II, Johan Thoms made me weep for the lives of individual soldiers, their families, their animals. And although I may sound like a cliché, Thornton avoids that trap entirely.
The novel takes a historical figure as its starting point: the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s driver. He comes to us in the form of the novel’s antagonist, Johan Thoms. The rest, as they say, is (fictional) history. In one swift move, one botched attempt to reverse, Johan Thoms of the slightly-too-large head alters the course of history forever (or so he thinks). By failing to extricate the archduke and his wife from a cul-de-sac in Sarajevo on a Sunday in June, 1914, Johan Thoms leaves them vulnerable to the bullets of an assassin. The couple die in each other’s arms. World War One begins.
Thoms believes that the enormity of the death and destruction to follow is his fault. The novel details his flight from Sarajevo against the unfolding backdrop of World War I, World War II, the Cold War, Vietnam and all the inter-related humanitarian crises that went on to span the 20th century. He spends the rest of his life in flight.
The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms moved me more than any piece of contemporary literature that I can remember. It contains elements of Bulgakovian absurdity, Kundera’s erudition and Mann’s rendering of the horror of fascism. Yet it stands alone, pulsing with its own life and its own identity. It is the kind of novel that sparks at the edge of your consciousness even when you are not reading it.
So why has this novel not achieved a wider readership? I talked to some of the people involved in publishing the book, and they explained to me that due to the difficulty in defining it by genre — which for me is central its appeal — marketing became a real challenge. I have since given copies to friends and family, and the response has been a resounding ‘wow’. When my mum finished it she sent me a message that demonstrated: a) that I had underestimated her text writing capabilities drastically, and b) that the book moved her profoundly enough for her to write, in text form, a philosophical meditation on the nature of love, war and humanity.
Happily, the book has been signed by Harper 360, and will be published in the US later this year. I have a friend who is going to teach it on her university course. It has been the choice of prison reading groups. Trust me when I tell you, nay beseech you, to go out, buy it, pass it on and share it…you can thank me later.
Thanks, Alice, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!
I’ll admit that I hated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I read it as a child — I’m sure that’s because most of it went over my head and I found some of the characters scary. It probably deserves a reread now that I’m a middle-aged adult!
I’ve not read Doctor Faustus but it sounds brilliant, and I’ve already purchased my copy of The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms on the strength of your enthusiasm here.
What do you think of Alice’s choices? Have you read any of these books?